Infected words

If you haven't seen Pontypool, be warned that what follows is bit spoilery. And you really should see it. It's not perfect, but it's one of those intelligent, claustrophobic horror movies that does a heck of a lot just with atmosphere and shots of people thinking.

You see, one of the central ideas in Pontypool – seriously, stop reading now and go and watch it – is that a zombie-ish virus is spread through infected words. Certain phrases and languages are immune, but others, when spoken aloud, cause contamination. To survive, the characters have to avoid, or change the meaning of, these words.

Now this sprung to mind yesterday as I was merrily tweeting away, and found myelf instinctively avoiding certain words. Increasingly, the purity of communication at the core of twitter is becoming sullied by automation: auto-followers, auto-retweets, certain organisations using twitter as an automated mini-RSS feed, etc. It's wrecking the whole flow and humanity of the thing. And it's not just twitter, but the increasing number of public (and faux-private) communication channels.

A lot of this is down to those pesky robots (and I really love the idea that they're actual Tom Gauldesque robots) picking up on certain words or phrases relevant to the product or meme that they're tasked with promoting. Sometimes this isn't too bad – mention Fight Club and you'll receive a random quote from the film courtesy of @IAm JacksBot – but most of the time it's a right old pain in the bum. Just because I make a joke about vikings in a tweet, it doesn't mean I'm interested in your Canadian hockey supplies shop. In fact, I now resent you a little bit. As a promotional strategy, it's entirely counter-productive: identify people who don't know about you; piss them off. 

But we learn which words are contaminated, and adjust them accordingly – avoid the mortgage spam by deliberately misspelling it, or by throwing a zero in there. If you don't want half a dozen opportunities to "win a free iPad", refer to it as t'Pad (as we in Yorkshire do anyway). Or just omit words and phrases altogether, gambling with incoherence. Of course these are the same tricks used by them to get v1agra and pr0n through spam filters. It's a language conflict that is ultimately changing the way we use words.

Robots have infected humanity, and we just have to adapt to survive. Or we could just hide.